“Shame is the lie someone told you about yourself.” – Anaïs Nin
I was eating dinner when I received the text.
“Why are your tits online?”
It was my homegirl, hitting me up. I thought she was joking, so I said so in my response. Stop fucking around. She assured me that this was no joke. She sent me a link and I got on my laptop, dinner forgotten.
There they were, round, brown, and THERE. Smuts R Us. That’s what they called the blog they had posted them on. The description on the blog indicated that the blog was created to “expose” women for their “smutty” ways, which, in this case, included sending intimate photos of themselves to someone. Actually there were two pictures of me on that site. One of me topless, close up, baring my nipples to the camera, and the other of me posing topless in white cotton panties in front of my bedroom mirror.
I immediately began to cry. I was humiliated. I felt made fun of. I felt violated, invaded. My mind raced to figure out who could have sent them. It was a scorned lover, an ex maybe, or a woman in their life who found my pictures somehow and sent them to this blog in sheer anger. I couldn’t understand why someone would want to do something like that to me. I was sobbing, heaving with my humiliation, my shock, my utter helplessness when my mother came into the bedroom. She looked concerned, sat next to me on my bed and held me as I shook with each wracking sob. I couldn’t breathe through my tears. When I finally told her what this person had done to me, she gasped and looked at me with shock etched into the corners of her mouth, her eyebrows.
“How could you do something like that, Imani? How could you?”
The word “smut,” is derived from the German word “schmutzen,” which means, “to make dirty.” The first use of the word “smut” used to describe something offensive was in the 1660s. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the term was used to describe offensive material that was sexual in nature. Think pin up magazines and pulp fiction. The term “smut,” is now a word akin to the likes of “slut,” “ho,” or “whore.” It is meant to derogatorily describe a woman that is considered promiscuous.
The origins of the word began with a way to describe a “black mark or stain.”
To be called a smut then, meant that I was a marked woman, a woman with the stain of dirt. I was offensive. I was not to be taken seriously. I was for sexual entertainment only.
I don’t know how or why I ended up on the phone with a dude who had liked me in the past, but there I was, distraught and crying and telling him the sordid details of my humiliation. I just wanted comfort. I wanted someone to tell me that I had done nothing wrong, that they were on my side, that I was not smutty, or disgusting, or unworthy of respect.
He asked me why I had sent the pictures. He asked me why I felt I had to do that.
I didn’t have an explanation. I didn’t think I needed one. I was an adult, wasn’t I? I was a sexually active woman in her mid-20s in the 2000’s. I didn’t see anything wrong with sharing my sensuality with someone I was already intimate with or was planning on being intimate with. But those pictures posted on that site were telling me I was nothing, I was less than nothing. I was blindsided by this violation. I was crushed and my confidence was shattered. I sobbed into my cell phone and he remained silent for a few moments.
“Can I see them? The pictures I mean?”
“I mean, you have ’em, right? I know you have more. I know you don’t care to send ’em out. So send me some.”
“Why would you ask me that? How dare you ask me that!” I choked through tears, anger singing the edges of my humiliation.
“Are you kidding me? Whatchu expect? You think you’re so fucking hot, well this is why your shit got exposed. Shit’s good for you. If I had pictures, I would send them, too, just to remind you that you’re not all that, ma. Get over yourself.”
He hung up on me. I don’t know why he mattered. I know that his words were the nails in a coffin that was already suffocating me.
It’s crazy what you hold on to.
In catechism classes, you are taught that in Exodus of the Bible, Adam and Eve cover themselves out of shame. You are a child and have no idea why they cover themselves because you have no idea that to be naked is to have shame. Adam and Eve had the bliss of no misfortune, no judgment. They were perfect creatures that God created. You are told that it was not until Eve shamed them both by taking the fruit from the tree of knowledge and seducing Adam into eating it with her, that they were banished from the Garden of Eden.
As child, you think knowledge is everything in the world. Every topic you can conjure in your young brain. The fruit Eve had taken meant she knew what God knew, she knew everything, she was suddenly a genius who knew every line of every book and every math problem ever. It is not until you are older that you are told that the knowledge people are mentioning is about their bodies and realizing they were naked. All of a sudden, you have questions. Was being naked a bad thing? Was the knowledge that they feasted on, the knowledge of sex? The knowledge of sensuality? Of pleasure?
You ask yourself why Eve is blamed for Adam’s actions. You ask why it is said she seduced him into sin. And then you realize the Bible, as sacred as it is, was written by men. That even back then, men needed to blame women when they couldn’t control themselves, they needed to blame women for their sexual urges, and they wanted to be excused for not controlling them. And what better way to do this then to label the mother of all women, Eve, as the Biblical reason? Eve was the real sinner here, poor Adam was “seduced” to eat the damn apple. He was “seduced” into recognizing his own sexuality. It was her fault.
Essentially, slut-shaming is of Biblical proportions.
I am at my homegirl’s house. I am using her computer and try as I might to avoid it, I go to the stupid blog. I report the blog, over and over and over, hoping with each report that it will suddenly delete itself from the ether. I find my pictures and begin to read the comments.
“Oh shit, isn’t that the little poet chick? Ha ha.”
“She has gorilla tits.”
“That’s what she gets for sending out pics like this. Dumb bitch.”
I close the browser. I cry into my hands. I ask a friend, a computer-techy kind of dude, what my options are. I have none. There is no law against it. There is no way I can legally track the anonymous blog creator. I have to swallow my pride and wear this shame like a a tattoo.
That night, in my bedroom, I finish work for school and line up my books on the folding table I worked on. I sit on the edge of my bed, holding a box cutter my brother gave me for protection in my hand, staring at the veins in my wrists. I run a fingertip over one, green under my untanned skin. I breathe deeply. I have done nothing but create chaos for myself. I have done nothing but set in stone that I will never be “good.” My mother says, “Men don’t like girls who are too much.” I am too much and too much means I am not “good” enough. I cry. I cry. I cry.
I put the razor down because I imagine that if I go through it, my spirit will float to the ceiling and I will watch myself bleed rubies onto my sabana. I imagine my spirit floating there as Mami finds me and I imagine how much pain I will feel watching her cry. I open my journal. I write that down. I rip out the page. I put the razor back in my schoolbag. I am angry. I am angry because I could feel shame for my body, feel shame for being flirtatious and sexy. I am angry because no one ever “exposed” men.
I cry alone. No one comes to tell me I will be okay. I don’t expect anyone to. Why should they?
Over brunch at IHOP, a friend I hadn’t seen since before the pictures were posted, looks at me over our stacks of buttermilk pancakes. We haven’t spoken about it. It’s almost as if we’re both avoiding the topic. When it finally comes up, I busy myself with eating pancakes as she speaks.
“When I saw the pictures, Angie, I wanted to kill you! You should’ve known better!”
“Guilt is feeling bad about what you have done; shame is feeling bad about who you are – all it is, is muddling up things you have done with who you are.” – Marcus Brigstocke
In 2015, I attended my second VONA. Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation is a week-long multi-genre workshop for writers of color specifically. It is the only one of its kind in the entire nation. I call it safety. I call it healing. I call it family.
We started the day with a prompt, “Write about the thing you cannot say.” I decided to write about this experience. Part of what I wrote:
“I’ll never forget the words ‘gorilla tits.’ I’d like to thank that person though, tell them that the story I could only say once to my family…the story that wasn’t about me but really about what they thought I had done and how it humiliated them…that story is just a seam in my skin. I own it…hold it out. It’s there. My gorilla titties are quite fucking perky thank you very much. And if that person were here now, I’d flash them, blind them with my rich gorilla rounds and tell them a word. A word that takes it all back, takes it back from family and judgment and shame. Takes it back from them all. MINE. I can say that word if I can’t say anything else.”
When I read the piece aloud, one of my fellow workshoppers spoke up:
“I am not sure if you meant ‘gorilla’ like the animal or ‘guerrilla’ like in warfare, ya know? I think if I were you, I’d leave it as the warfare ‘guerrilla’ though. You’re fighting a battle, you know.”
I was fighting a battle. I was struggling. I dug the change of word…. guerrilla tits.
I never looked at it quite that way.
“Growing up is, at heart, the process of learning to take responsibility for whatever happens in your life. To choose growth is to embrace a love that heals.”
― bell hooks,
Shame was rooted in how I defined myself long before Smuts-R-Us. By the time these photos were posted, shame was a shadow that followed me everywhere. When I was 19 years old, an ex-boyfriend showed up at my building asking for my attention again. Our relationship had been one fraught with volatility. When I told him I was no longer interested, he called me a “dumb bitch” and a “ho.”
“I don’t know who told you thatchu hot shit, but I know you better than anyone, Angie, remember? You ain’t shit. You just a ho, bitch. Watch. You gonna die alone.”
It’s funny the kind of shit your psyche chooses to remember.
I’ve talked about shame before and about it’s long lingering effects. It infects you and soon, it’s so braided into how you view yourself that you don’t remember life without it. You create ways to avoid it. You run from it. You feed it like Seymour feeds Audrey II, the carnivorous plant in Little Shop of Horrors. Nothing ever satisfies its hunger.
Feed me, Seymour. Feed me.
But you never, ever face it.
My mother clutches her pearls when I tell her that I feel no guilt about what happened. Like I said, there’s nothing wrong in my eyes with a sexually active adult woman doing something that is sexual. Por favor. I did nothing wrong.
But, I was ashamed because I felt no guilt. I was ashamed because I was told my actions reflected on everyone around me. I was ashamed because no one could love someone who feels no guilt about sending sexy photos of herself. I wasn’t a “good” woman because I should’ve known better.
Guilt is feeling bad about an error made and shame is feeling bad about yourself. The thread in carrying shame is always contempt, the feeling that you are beneath consideration and that you deserve scorn, that you deserve bad.
I treated myself with contempt for years.
I did do something wrong though. What I did wrong was share myself with someone unworthy of ME. But that in and of itself, is proof that I have so often let my shame dictate my life.
Because I felt unworthy I remained with the unworthy.
I can’t say that I sucked it up and honored myself after this happened. I can’t say I made the best choices. I didn’t. I wanted so badly to not “die alone” that I chose not to be alone and in my invitation to people unworthy of me, I fed the carnivorous shame over and over. I am known in my circles for being bubbly, sociable, confident, sassy even. But admittedly, I have always been unsure of myself, of what I had to offer and the fleeting relationships I held were proof of it. I prolonged relationships with men who were emotionally unavailable, who gaslighted and manipulated me. And when honest and loving dudes came my way, I self-sabotaged the situation. Yes, people hurt me, things happened to me. But I kept blaming people for the residues of their actions. I kept them as the villain in my mind’s eye. I heard their words, I felt their judgment, I wore the humiliations for years after. I fed Audrey II for years.
I kept that toxicity in my body and soul. I kept it without knowing its name. I became the villain in my story. I became my own adversary in my battle.
I am only now recognizing it for what it is.